As a western feminist interested in women’s rights in the Middle East, I stand in awe of the brave, strong women standing up as a fresh voice of a generation that will not accept sexist inequality and oppression anymore. One of those contemporary voices is the Egyptian-American journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy, who published the book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution in May.
Although I think these are the kind of books that need to be published today, I agree with an often articulated critique of Eltahawy’s point of view: not all men are our enemy. Feminism is not a war against men; it’s too often about fighting an idea that resides in the minds of women themselves as well.
What I noticed while reading Eltahawy’s book is the emotional factor that greatly influences her perspective. Instead of writing from a point of view that stems from rationality in pursuit of a solution, she seems driven by a lot of anger and pain, which is understandable. I am not saying it is impossible for women to be emotional and rational at the same time, or trying to devalue Eltahawy’s experiences. Her story is hers to own and she does that with tremendous bravery, seeing the strength almost lighting up the pages of her feminist manifest.
What I am saying is that sometimes, an outsider’s perspective could bring more objectivity to the table seeing that their views aren’t clouded by traumatic events which may lead to dangerous generalizations.
In the first pages of her book Headscarves & Hymens, Eltahawy clearly says that she was traumatized to be a feminist. As a Western, white female, I was not. Given that, I’d like to add something to this crucial debate.
According to Eltahawy, the women-oppressing mentality of Muslim men in the Middle East is the result of a ‘dangerous toxic mix of religion and culture’. This is probably where she loses many readers who find their roots in Islamic cultures, and what makes people serve her off as ‘radical’.
Eltahawy and her anger don’t seem to give enough regards to the fact that most people in the Middle East aren’t ready to choose a girl’s safety over their religious and moral ideas. However, I applaud Eltahawy’s ruthless approach to stir up the established mentality. Critical voices are functional in transforming a society.
From my personal stance, the most radical aspect of her approach is her use of generalizations. Her sweeping statement of putting both genders into firmly standing roles – the enemy and the victim – has no function at all in fighting the manifested gender roles.
For example, Eltahawy shares her experiences with gender-segregation as a teenager in Saudi-Arabia. I don’t see how thinking in ‘us’ – Arab women – versus ‘them’, Arab men, terms is anything less than a form of segregation, when she asked herself the infamous question: ‘Why do they hate us?’ If men and women are to be equal, in the public’s eye, as well as the state and within the domestic life, we must treat them equally: don’t turn all women into victims and don’t treat all men as offenders. It’s a patriarchal system that needs to be fought collectively, not a war of women against men.
If one agrees with Eltahawy’s notion that this women-hating patriarchy finds its roots in the aforementioned combination of religion and culture, then changing such culture cannot happen without changing the men who were raised in it. We cannot expect to transform the side to which history has been biased to with only one half of the population. She writes the following about Arab men:
“They hate us because they need us, they fear us, they understand how much control it takes to keep us in line, to keep us good girls with our hymens intact until it’s time for them to f**k us into mothers who raise future generations of misogynists to forever fuel their patriarchy. They hate us because we are at once their temptation and their salvation from that patriarchy, which they must sooner or later realize, hurts them, too.”
It’s the ‘they’ that is problematic. Serving off all Arab men as oppressing, woman-hating and violently hostiles makes the struggle for gender equality even harder. Men are a part of the problem, and therefore men are a part of the solution.
We shouldn’t see them as the living form of the problem itself: the problem is the idea that women are inferior to men. Men are the key to a society where women are not inferior to – let alone murdered, physically and mentally abused and oppressed by – their male co-citizens.
The Egyptian case
The cultural and practicing-religious diversity in the Middle East is immense and therefore I’d like to focus on the Egyptian case. I am not saying patriarchy is solely a Middle Eastern or Egyptian problem; the idea of inferiority of women is transnational and manifests itself in many cultural forms. For those who are still in denial of the women-hating patriarchy that rules Egypt, I recommend reading Eltahawy’s book. If this book shows one thing, it’s how much a sexual revolution is needed. It does so not only by telling women’s personal experiences, but it’s also done through quoting surveys and contextualizing the data.
One of the examples that Eltahawy uses to illustrate her point – men hating women – is female genital mutilation. FGM is a direct attack on human rights and shows the specific way in which Egypt expresses its fear of female sexuality – this fear being a transnational feature of patriarchy. Ninety-two per cent of once married women aged between 15 and 49 in Egypt have had their genitals mutilated. Only 31 per cent of those operations have been performed by an actual doctor, according to the Minister of Health.
Just like I do, Eltahawy asks herself how women can let this happen to their daughters. I remember reading stories of women whose mothers and grandmothers held them down when they were still children, and how someone –most likely not a doctor– cut off a part of their clitoris and/or labia, sometimes with a scissor, and often without any form of anesthesia. Those stories haunted me, not just because of the brutality in the act, but because cutting off the most sensitive part of a woman’s body, while most likely still being a child who is wide awake and screaming, is a threat to women’s rights worldwide.
Victimizing Arab Women Is Not The Answer
While we ask the same moral, angry question, I strongly disagree with Eltahawy’s nuance in her answer: “In order to survive, women police their daughters’ bodies and their own, subsuming desire for the ‘honor’ and the family’s good name.”
She turns all the mothers who mutilated their daughters into victims of the patriarchy that they grew up in, victims of their own survival mechanism. Those mothers genuinely believe that the decision to mutilate their daughters’ bodies is the best one for their child by restraining her sexuality.
So then, when a father makes this decision, how does being a victim suddenly change into an act of women-hating in itself? Are they not just as much a victim, an outcome, of a cultural and religious misogynist environment?
Everybody is a victim of the system, and at the same time, neither men nor women ought to be victimized because they are themselves what is keeping the system alive.
It doesn’t matter whether they are men or women, both are as guilty of being led by a misogynist mentality. Both stand motionless as they watch their screaming daughters’ plea to be saved, but they choose not to take action because they value culture and religion over her physical and mental wellbeing. A girl can better be dead than a shame to the family’s honor.
Just like religion and culture, a self-protecting survival mechanism should not ever pardon a violation of human rights. A sexual revolution does not start by victimizing women. Eltahawy’s ‘they’ in the question ‘why they hate us’ does not refer to Arab men. It refers to all people oppressing women, and too often, those people are females themselves.
That is why a sexual revolution in Egypt, and other Arab countries, should not be a war against Arab men. It should be a war against the idea that women are inferior to men. It should be a war against that exact toxic mix of culture, tradition and religion that Eltahawy speaks about. Angry declarations of ‘us’ against ‘them’ is not going to make a sexual revolution happen. If anything, it will only light up that toxic mix. It will highlight the segregation, and it is segregation that makes it possible to value one group over the other because of gender.
So here I am, standing in awe at the many brave feminists of the new generation in Egypt and across the Middle East, who happen not to be all women. There are brave young men among them, willing to fight what they’ve been taught all their lives with morality; willing to fight their fathers, their uncles and their brothers, to protect their sisters.
When both men and women can collectivize the courage that is needed to do so – not just for protecting their mothers, themselves and their daughters, but because it is the right thing to do – that is where equality of the sexes is born.